It’s Time to Think about whether Evolution Really Happened

It’s Time to Think about whether Evolution Really Happened April 3, 2016

I’m always surprised at how much rancor is directed toward “creationists”—those who deny that evolution, whether on the macro or micro level, is the best explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. I’m also surprised at how certain many biologists are that evolution occurred (Jerry Coyne, to give a prominent example).

Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in science, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible evidence for the reality of evolution, and that arguments can be made that evolution is a purely mythological notion, derived from earlier ideologies, which gradually attained “facthood.” As a historian, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that evolution occurred as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all scientists to that view. It’s almost as if rejecting evolution brands you as an overly strident religious person, one lacking “respect” for science. There’s an onus against creationism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.

I am pretty sure that, if the above had been posted on a blog anywhere, Jerry Coyne would be the first to recognize that it is nonsense. And yet Coyne himself has, sadly and ironically, written much the same thing as I posted above, yet about the historical Jesus. Click through to read it, and then please come back and help me understand how someone who is a champion of scholarship in one domain, can be a champion of fringe pseudoscholarship in another.

 

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  • As far as I know, I’m blocked from posting on Coyne’s blog (not sure why). Otherwise, I would have objected to that post.

  • Erp

    I think Coyne is unaware of how historians work. Or perhaps confuses academic historians with apologists. Now I admit I think some historians have concluded too much about Jesus of Nazareth, but, I also think the preponderance of evidence supports his having been from Nazareth of Galilee and been executed in Jerusalem and having left some followers, notably Cephas/Peter and Jesus’s brother James (personally I would like to know how come James who gets mentioned by Paul and Josephus as fairly important gets so little mention in the gospels and even Acts, perhaps some early internal struggle that Jame’s side lost [like Emma Smith and her sons after Joseph Smith’s murder for the Mormons?] but that is my unscholarly speculation).

    • histrogeek

      The evidence from Paul, the letter attributed to James, and even later Acts definitely shows that James was the leader of the “party of circumcision,” those who insisted on Jewish law for all Gentile converts. At least that’s how Paul and the author of Acts portray his position. In any event James was part of the losing side in a factional dispute. Also James’ base of support was in Jerusalem, so many of his followers and their writings were lost during the Jewish War.

    • I think most experts are unaware of how other disciplines work. For example, in his book Darwin on Trial, Philip Johnson (father of Intelligent Design) expresses shock at the notion that he can’t just criticize evolution without offering a competing hypothesis. He says this is like requiring an attorney to not only show the client is not guilty, but also find another suspect. Johnson doesn’t seem to grasp that science doesn’t work the same way as criminal law.

      • arcseconds

        It is in fact possible to make criticisms of current scientific theories without proposing alternatives, and there have been several examples of this historically.

        One of the most well-known in physics was the ‘ultraviolet castrophe’ when the structure of the atom was being figured out. By Newtonian rights, the electron ought to plummet into the nucleus as it radiates all its energy away as ultraviolet light, but this doesn’t happen.

        There was also the problem with the ‘steady state’ universe, favoured by Einstein and others just prior to modern cosmogony really getting off the ground, where every line of sight should end on a star, so the night sky should be awash in light.

        (There are other examples, but these are the two that sprung immediately to mind.)

        Of course, because on the whole scientists aren’t idiots, the people who make these criticisms are almost always the scientists themselves, and (at least with really significant problems) they’re normally readily recognised.

        What is the case though is that scientists are not going to discard a theory that is mostly working out if there are no alternatives. A theory would have to be pretty useless to be discarded without an alternative. Some of the community will no doubt investigate the known problems and look at alternatives, but meanwhile the other part of the community will continue with the problems noted.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I wonder what Bayes Theorem has to say about the probability of evolution.

    • Grimlock

      Quite a lot, probably. It’s basically just a structured approach to weighting evidence in a sensible fashion, and to a certain extent we all reason in that way once in a while.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Well, it doesn’t really weight evidence. Any data point has just as much weight as any other data point. It’s uniquely unsuited for making judgment calls about the nature of the evidence, itself, which pretty much makes it uniquely unsuited for making probabilistic statements about history.

        • Grimlock

          History? I thought we were talking about evolution.

          Of course Bayes Theorem could say stuff about the evidence for evolution. The weights we attach to the evidence would, by necessity, be somewhat subjective. But then, so what? It would make the subjective weighting of the evidence more transparent, for instance. It would make it possible to roughly say how bad for the theory of evolution it would be if we found rabbits in the precambrian.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Yes. I was trying to make a distinction between “does evolution happen” versus “evolution explains all current diversity of life.” The latter statement requires some historical extrapolation from the data we have (totally warranted, but still – we don’t have an actual data point for the first single-celled organism, whereas we have plenty of datapoints for mutation currently being observed).

            BT actually greatly magnifies subjective weighting. Once you introduce a subjective weight into the probabilities, you can pretty much prove anything you like. A tiny change in weight will be distributed over the other probabilities resulting in an enormous deviation on the other side.

          • Grimlock

            Right. I think we might actually obtain some sort of agreement here.

            I now see the distinction that you are making.

            How about I make my own distinction. In principle, BT can be a very useful tool in reasoning in general. It can provide transparency in the reasoning, and ensures that one adjusts ones beliefs as new evidence comes to light.

            I practice, however, BT can be misused, abused, and generally be a tool for deception.

            Sounds reasonable?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, I think one thing we agree on, that I also agree with Richard Carrier on, is that we often use terms like “probable” and “likely” very uncritically. We need to be able to criticize why we’ve labeled something that way and know the guts of why we’ve made that pronouncement, and if we can quantify it, so much the better.

            In some areas of inquiry, BT is a useful tool to do that. In other areas of inquiry, the principles behind BT might inform or inspire us in our criticism, even if BT in itself is not a great tool to use in that situation (and even Carrier doesn’t actually use BT in his books about the necessity of using BT).

            That’s my take. So, for historical propositions in general, I think BT would probably do more harm than good if actually applied, but the logical steps you go through in acquiring data points, defining your alternatives, looking for intrinsic parameters and likelihoods for those options, and defining how you might even go about constructing those probabilities – all great things to do in reasoning in general.

          • Grimlock

            I think we are in agreement. (So rare on Disqus, yet such a pleasure!) We differ with respect to the application of BT to history, but that might be because I’m fairly ignorant of history as a scholarly field. Also, I’m a mathematician by education, so… y’know, numbers.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I’m a lean operations consultant, so maybe I just have an antipathy toward numbers because I spend a lot of time trying to convince managers to accept their metrical data.

          • Grimlock

            Hey, that’s cool! I have a few colleagues who works with lean stuff, and I’ve also had the (dis)pleasure of hearing about how some people have, what shall we say, non-empirist leanings.

            You don’t incidentally have any tips for how to deal with such managers? It’s not come up for me yet, but I expect it might at some point.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Yeah, it comes up for me all the time. It came up Wednesday. And this guy is a very good manager, but he couldn’t believe that his throughput was as slow as the data suggested. I have conversations like this approximately a bajillion times a year.

            Here are the things I try to keep in mind:

            1. It is not my personal responsibility to make someone responsive to data. I can show them the data, help them interpret it, and explain why it would be beneficial to plan according to the actual data and not our wishes, hopes, or gut feelings, but I can’t actually make them do it. I have discharged my duties to the best of my ability by presenting and advising.

            2. No matter how it is expressed, all objections are typically expressions of, “I don’t like what the data is telling me.” If your data upheld their expectations or were even better than their expectations, you’d be encountering no resistance. It’s because they want X and the data shows Y that you’re getting the reaction. This is a pretty human thing to do – be disappointed and lash out at something else. You often just have to be patient with it and gently ask questions to get past the initial emotional reactions and into the real reasons. I had a CEO cuss me out, once, and after asking some questions, he said, “You’re right, and that’s why I’m mad.” You just have to know that’s what’s going on most of the time and not lose your own cool.

            3. Data will often suggest things that seem counter-intuitive on the face of it. Most people do not know things about Little’s Law and queuing theory and the Theory of Constraints and the effects of variance, and you shouldn’t expect them to just because you do. So, when you say something like, “We could produce a lot more if we cut down on the number of items we’re currently producing,” that seems totally ridiculous to people at first glance, and you’ve got to know that up front.

            The main issue is that most of the time, the main issue is not what you get presented with, and it’s a mistake to fight your battle over that issue. You have to resist that initial temptation and ask questions and offer guidance, knowing that the initial resistance is probably a smokescreen. The real issue is probably they are facing an unpleasant reality for the first time and are trying to protect themselves, or maybe they’re afraid they’ve screwed the pooch, or maybe they don’t appreciate someone coming in from the outside and telling them what’s what. That’s, like 85% of the pushback.

            I know you probably didn’t sign up to be a psychologist, but them’s the breaks of working with management.

          • Grimlock

            Hey, my apologies for the terribly late response. My primary reason is that I’m a terrible person. My secondary reason is that the last month or so has been rather hectic.

            I just wanted to say thank you for your very thorough response here. It’s my appreciated!

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Sorry for the double comment, but not only does the post have significant flaws, the comments below are full of some of the most ahistorical, consistency-bereft support for it.

    It’s ironic that the mythicist claim is that historicists hold their position for essentially psychological reasons, when the sheer amount of flimsy ridiculousness they will cling to in order to substantiate their position just reeks of holding on to anything to keep Jesus from even existing.

    I’ve been doing a lot of work with Bayes Theorem in my line of work, recently, and I am this close to writing a book called Other People Who Never Existed and just going nuts with a similar application of BT to the probability of people existing from Socrates to Constantine to George Washington. And then I’d be interested to see why mythicists would not wholeheartedly embrace those propositions.

    • Chris Mason

      When you said that the post and comments have significant flaws, you meant the post and comments on Coyne’s blog, right? Just asking for clarity purposes. I initially thought that you were referring to McGrath’s post.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Right, yes.

  • Chris Mason

    “It’s almost as if rejecting RELIGION brands you as an overly strident religious person, one lacking ‘respect’ for science.” (EMPHASIS added)

    I’m assuming that you meant to write “evolution” there, right? Other than that, great article.

    • Thanks for catching that – I’ll fix it!

      • Chris Mason

        You’re welcome!

  • Arlene Adamo

    Isn’t Jerry Coyne part of the New Atheist movement? If this is true then his objective, on the subject of religion, is not to argue it but to eradicate it, (which I find as ludicrous as the Creationists.) Given this zealous obsession, it makes sense that it would manifest with him trying, not to simply discredit Jesus, but to eradicate Him entirely from history. This article seems to be much more about a New Atheist finding reassuring comfort in his dogmatic beliefs than of facts.

    • J

      This article seems to be much more about a New Atheist finding reassuring comfort in his dogmatic beliefs than of facts.

      So what’s the problem then? The pro-religion crowd is on record in 50 places saying that, “Well, sure, maybe this belief isn’t strictly factual but it helps people cope with life so it’s good.”

      So, again: What is the problem? At this point, the actual quantity of atheist books, blogs, whatever is way, way, WAY outmassed by the quantity of anti-atheist books, blogs, beheadings, etc. It’s really amazing how very threatened the religious world is by this tiny movement. Has very much the character of an elephant terrified by a mouse. If eradicating religion is as unlikely as you say, then why the hate? Why the sermonizing and polemicizing? Why the palpable anger on your part, theist?

      • Arlene Adamo

        I’m not sure where you are getting this idea that I am angry. James McGrath asked for help understanding Coyne’s thinking and I gave him my analysis. I don’t really care at all about the New Atheists and their ideas about religion. The only time they bother me is when some of them threaten hope for social harmony by spreading bigotry and hatred ironically in the same way the Creationists do. But that is not part of this discussion.

        • Hurdy Derpy Man

          You seem really, really angry.

        • J

          I’m not sure where you are getting this idea that I am angry.

          It couldn’t possibly be the sneering mockery on your part.

          I don’t really care at all about the New Atheists

          You do, in fact, seem to care a certain amount.

          The only time they bother me is when some of them threaten hope for social harmony

          Oh, of course: We’re threatening ‘harmony’. What with all of the bombs and beheadings and slave-trading we do. Yes, we are the preeminent threat to social harmony in the world today. Our grip on politics is so extreme that it is impossible for anyone to get elected unless they disavow the idea of pregnant virgins.

          by spreading bigotry and hatred

          Nothing says ‘I’m not angry’ and ‘I don’t really care at all’ about someone than to claim they are bigots.

          But that is not part of this discussion.</i?

          Yes it is.

      • Pseudonym

        I’m not Arlene, but I am angry.

        So what’s the problem then? The pro-religion crowd is on record in 50 places saying that, “Well, sure, maybe this belief isn’t strictly factual but it helps people cope with life so it’s good.”

        It’s not necessarily wrong if you’re honest about that, but Coyne is trying to make a point about historical research. People who actually care about history get it from both sides!

        Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you…

        It’s really amazing how very threatened the religious world is by this tiny movement.

        We aren’t “the religious world” here. We are the historical world (oh, and the prog rock world, but that’s another topic), some of us amateur and some of us professional, and we are threatened by any movement which seeks to undermine the field.

        Remember how tobacco companies and oil companies got together to fund anti-vaccine groups, because anything which sows the seeds of doubt about science is good for their bottom lines? Yeah, that, only it’s the humanities. Admittedly on a lower budget, but still.

        Sam Harris notwithstanding, I don’t think that new atheists are on the side of government torturers. But in a sense, which I will get to in a moment, they are.

        Liberal institutions are under attack right now and have been for some time. (Warning: Hour-long lecture, but it’s worth it.)

        It’s hard not to see this, not as a conspiracy, but as a general trend where public discourse is being infantilised and dumbed-down in the service of cynical political ends.

        History is already being abused (e.g. how slavery is treated in US high school textbooks, or the meme of the US founded as a “Christian nation”) just as science is. We need our historians more than ever right now.

        We also need our moral philosophers more than ever right now. In 2004, it was revealed that the US tortured prisoners, and the government scrambled to hush it up fearing a backlash. Just in the last month, one of the front-running candidates for the highest office in the US advocated torturing prisoners with essentially no backlash from his supporters.

        So no, I don’t see this as just an academic exercise. Any promotion of truthiness over scholarship has real-world implications where people get hurt.

        Anything which sows the seeds of public distrust in our academics and intellectuals is a step backwards. Anything which elevates fringe pseudo-scholarship to a level of prominence which it does not deserve is a step backwards. Skepticism is good. Debate is good. Promoting nonsense is an “own goal” in the battle against nonsense.

        End rant.

        • J

          I don’t think that new atheists are on the side of government torturers. But in a sense, which I will get to in a moment, they are.

          No we’re not.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Good argument, dude.

          • J

            It didn’t really require anything else. He said something wrong, I corrected him. Issue settled.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            No, you didn’t.

          • J

            Actually, I did.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            No, you didn’t.

          • Pseudonym

            Is this the five-minute argument, or the full half-hour?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            You’re just contradicting me!

          • J

            You said something wrong, I corrected you. Issue settled.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            No, you didn’t.

          • Pseudonym

            In case anyone wasn’t clear on this, that was a rant. The “vibe” of this thread is that we’re being just a bit over-the-top to make a point.

            I went over-the-top, and I hope I made my point.

    • Grimlock

      What is your reason(s) for saying that the objective of [New Atheism] is to eradicate religion?

      That seems a bit off the mark, to be honest.

      • Arlene Adamo

        “How to Get Rid of Religion”

        https://richarddawkins.net/2012/11/how-to-get-rid-of-religion/

        Just to help you better understand how I see it, I think atheists are very important to a society in order to help keep religions honest, but when they become extreme, (as with any group), they become blindly politically-minded and can cause and/or contribute to all sorts of social problems.

        • Grimlock

          Well, damn, do I feel stupid now or what?

          Though I would point out that I doubt all of New Atheism, as a movement, desires to eradicate religion. Although I grant that substantial subset does. I admit that I can see the argument in favour of eradicating (or drastically reducing the religiousness in the world population), but then as a side effect of reducing poverty, inequality, etc. What do you think about that?

          Would you mind elaborating on what you mean when you say that atheist groups can cause and/or contribute to social problems?

          It bugs when people talk (and create!) atheist groups. An atheist is, quite simply, someone who does not believe in a god. Nothing else follows, and attaching a bunch of other stuff to the concept just messes up the concept. All sides of the argument has a tendency to do this, so I have the pleasure of being equally cranky at everyone! (Though in fairness I can see the motivation for these atheist groups in heavily religious countries such as the US.)

          • Arlene Adamo

            “I admit that I can see the argument in favour of eradicating (or
            drastically reducing the religiousness in the world population), but
            then as a side effect of reducing poverty, inequality, etc. What do you
            think about that?”

            I think if there was a universal consensus to adopt a basic morality recognizing human rights and dignities, it’s possible that the outcome would be better more progressive democratic religions which would actually result in even more religion.

            Would you mind elaborating on what you mean when you say that atheist groups can cause and/or contribute to social problems?

            As you said, most atheists do not belong to a group, and when they do, most tend to be small and focused on community support rather than on politics and money. As with churches, problems can arise when they become large wealthy hierarchical organizations in a world where they are courted by nefarious special interest politics and dependent for their lavish existence on sponsors. I think this is what has happened to those associated with the New Atheists. No longer is atheism their main concern, but instead, they are mostly serving the interests of whoever ‘feeds and pets’ them.

          • Grimlock

            I think if there was a universal consensus to adopt a basic morality recognizing human rights and dignities, it’s possible that the outcome would be better more progressive democratic religions which would actually result in even more religion.

            Sure, the religions might get more cuddly (which, by the way, is pretty much what has happened here in the Scandinavian countries).

            However, it also seems that good stuff dispels the need that people have for religion. The needs that religion provides can be satisfied in other ways, so it seems likely that better living conditions will cause a decrease in religiosity. But it would be interesting to see the impact of drastically changing religious practices and organizations.

            As you said, most atheists do not belong to a group, and when they do, most tend to be small and focused on community support rather than on politics and money. As with churches, problems can arise when they become large wealthy hierarchical organizations in a world where they are courted by nefarious special interest politics and dependent for their lavish existence on sponsors. I think this is what has happened to those associated with the New Atheists. No longer is atheism their main concern, but instead, they are mostly serving the interests of whoever ‘feeds and pets’ them.

            I think I see what you mean. Essentially that groups in general are vulnerable to annoying influences.

            However, ‘atheism’ has never been the concern of the New Atheist movement. Atheism is simply a disbelief in a god. The New Atheist movement has rather been about gaining social acceptance for people who don’t believe in gods, and fighting against what is seen as undesirable influence from religions (e.g. attempts to put creationism in science classes).

            What makes you think that New Atheism has gone off the rails, so to speak?

          • Arlene Adamo

            http://www.alternet.org/grayzone-project/new-atheist-spokesperson-sam-harris-featured-explicitly-anti-muslim-hate-video

            http://thehumanist.com/commentary/atheists-have-an-anti-muslim-bigotry-problem

            http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/30/we-can-save-atheism-from-the-new-atheists

            http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/new-atheism-anti-muslim-white-supremacy-movement-426032443

            I had to stop watching Bill Maher because at times it was becoming to much like listening to Ted Cruz. It doesn’t matter what your belief system, if you are leaning towards ethnic hatred, bigotry, violent discourse and scapegoatism, you are headed down a horrible and destructive path.

          • Grimlock

            Hmm, those are some interesting, and disquieting, articles. Thanks for sharing!

          • Neko

            You wrote:

            However, it also seems that good stuff dispels the need that people have for religion.

            There are plenty of wealthy and well-off religious believers. Although it’s true that religions thrive among the poor.

          • Grimlock

            Sure. I’m talking about general trends, see the Uncertainty Hypothesis for Religious Belief: http://ccr.sagepub.com/content/45/3/318.abstract

          • J

            I think this is what has happened to those associated with the New Atheists.

            That’s cute. Name 1 atheist state governor.

          • arcseconds

            Do Governors-General count? Because Bill Hayden was an atheist… I must admit I’m unable to see the relevance of this question, though.

          • arcseconds

            People run atheist blogs, write athiest books, are recognised as atheist authors, and speak as atheists at atheist conferences.

            So it seems pretty clear that there is in fact a (loose-knit) community here, and it has adopted ‘atheist’ as its descriptor, and like any community the norms, accepted premises, etc. go beyond just not believing in God. An ‘atheist author’ (who writes ‘atheist books’ and speaks at ‘atheist conferences’) isn’t just someone who happens to not believe in God and happens to have written a book about model trains or something.

            (Of course there wasn’t a committee meeting where this was done, but it’s not like they have their own name for themselves and ‘atheist’ has been forced on them by others)

            I suppose in the interests of clarity it would have been nice if they had adopted a different term and left ‘atheist’ to just mean ‘doesn’t believe in god’, but that’s not what happened, and I think it’s basically too late now. ‘Atheist’ now has at least two meanings: a narrow meaning which just means ‘doesn’t believe in God’ and a wider, and looser, definition of someone who doesn’t believe in God and reads Hermant Mehta and owns ‘The God Delusion’ and reads pop science books and argues against nativity displays on state property, etc.

          • Grimlock

            I can’t really disagree with that. And I think it’s a shame, and do argue against atheist as well as theists who use the term in the broadest sense. We already have a term for that movement, and it’s New Atheism.

            I might be fighting a losing battle. On the other hand, in the long term, a movement defined purely in opposition to something else? That doesn’t seem viable in the long run.

          • arcseconds

            I use the term ‘movement atheists’ myself: it’s short, non-prejudicial (except insofar as it’s sometimes regarded as being dreadfully uncool and naff to be part of a movement), and accurate enough: someone who just doesn’t believe in god isn’t part of a movement but someone who attends conferences very plausibly is, and someone who buys and reads books is a bit borderline but if they enthusiastically promote the ideas to their friends they probably are.

            ‘New Atheists’ is problematic for a few reasons.

            Firstly, my understanding is that it was coined and initially used by detractors (e.g. Gary Wolf, who I think originated the term?).

            Secondly, the ‘type specimens’ or paradigmatic examples are Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris (with Harris being added later), and antitheism and anti-religion taken to be the notable properties.

            While movement atheism can be said to have a strong anti-religious leaning overall, not every movement atheist is anti-religious, whereas New Atheism there’s a much stronger implication (to the point of practically being a necessary condition) of this.

            Moreover, the paragons of New Atheism have other qualities which are not very endearing, in particular xenophobia and misogyny (Dawkins and Harris are the worst culprits here I believe), so even anti-religious movement atheists have a good reason to want to distance themselves from these people.

            As far as the negative focus is concerned, I do think it’s a bit of a funny and potentially problematic thing to have as a core defining feature.

            But movement atheism doesn’t revolve solely around not believing in god.

            There’s an anti-religious aspect to it which is distinct from not believing in god, of course, and while being united against something might also be criticised for the specifics, in general we think it’s fine to have a movement that’s against something: anti-slavery, anti-climate change, etc. Here I think the criticism is not so much ‘you’re anti-something, and that’s questionable’ but rather ‘you’re anti-religion, and that’s questionable’.

            And then there are the positive things: movement atheism is on the whole pro-science and interested in science, for example, and pro-rationality more generally (even though they don’t always really instantiate this as much as one might hope), at least nominally mildly socially progressive on the whole (even though there have been embarrassing regressive incidents) and then there’s just hanging out with people who have a similar outlook to you, and it’s hard to have much of a beef with that.

          • Grimlock

            Stop saying things I agree with. I’m not on Disqus to agree with people.

            Kidding aside, I think that what you say makes sense. The term ‘movement atheist’ seems very much appropriate.

            I do disagree with your remark about how it’s problematic that the term ‘New Atheism’ was coined by a detractor. I mean, so what? Taking a term from detractors, and making it your own, can be a powerful thing. I was actually going to refer to the term “Big Bang” as a term coined by a detractor, but when I checked it up, turns out that Hoyle actually denies that it was meant in a negative fashion. Oh well.

            I’m not sure if the New Atheism movement can be described as anti-religious as a whole. I certainly grant that it has an anti-religious tendency, but that seems to partly be due to its focus on the negative aspects of religion.

            I rather like your comparison with anti-slavery for Movement Atheism (consider this term stolen), or New Atheism. Anti-slavery was a useful and valid gig as long as slavery was an actual thing. These days, while most people are anti-slavery, there is no such thing as an anti-slavery movement. If (when?) atheists become socially accepted on equal grounds with believers, and if (when?) undue religious influence are gone from the public sphere, then Movement Atheism should also lose its relevance.

            …of course, I doubt that’ll happen in a few lifetimes, if ever.

          • Neko

            Just don’t accuse a New Atheist of being a New Atheist. You risk being excoriated as a “bigot” who’s too stupid to grasp that there’s no such thing as New Atheism.

          • Grimlock

            Would now be a bad time to mention that I’m technically a New Atheist?

          • Neko

            What “technically” makes you a New Atheist? 🙂

          • Grimlock

            Do you want the short or the long answer? (Who am I kidding – you’ll get the long one.)

            There are multiple reasons.

            For one, I don’t believe in gods (so I’m an atheist). For a few others, I generally think that religion’s influence in the social sphere should be reduced, and that religious belief in large is not rational belief* (assuming access to sufficient amounts of information). I vehemently loathe it when creationists attempts to screw up people’s education. I don’t think any idea is above being scrutinized, mocked, or ignored. As for science, I consider it our best tool for obtaining knowledge about the world, and fancy myself a fairly rational person, as far as humans go (so not very rational?). My opinion on actively raising a child in a religious tradition is that I’m highly skeptical of it, because there’s a blurry line between indoctrination and raising a child. Also because, apparently, raising a child in a religion seems to hinder that person’s ability to make an objective choice about religious belief later in life.

            I also think that a world without so much religion would be a better place, though that is in large part because of other factors (e.g. high standards of living, low inequality, etc.) that negatively correlates with religious belief.

            Does that make sense, or do I sound like a raving lunatic?

            *Note that I don’t think that religious people are irrational. As a general term, religiosity seems to stem from some fairly fascinating psychological mechanism, that also impacts everyone else in other ways. Moreover, religions – e.g. Christianity – provides a lot of important aspects for the religious (community, meaning, a structure for morality, etc.), making it something one would be reluctant to let go off.

          • Neko

            You wrote:

            Does that make sense, or do I sound like a raving lunatic?

            Huh? Why would you even think I would think that? None of this is particularly controversial.

            It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to “eradicate” religion, though. You said, “I vehemently loathe it when creationists attempts to screw up people’s education.” Of course. That is why New Atheists should join forces with progressive religionists to discourage religious fundamentalism.

          • Grimlock

            Huh? Why would you even think I would think that? None of this is particularly controversial.

            True enough. Though I try not to take agreement for granted about these things. Mostly in order to keep a reasonably civil tone (at which I occasionally fail completely).

            It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to “eradicate” religion, though.

            For multiple reasons, I agree that it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to eradicate religion itself. However, a reduction of religiosity seems like an expected consequence of making life better for people in general.

            Of course. That is why New Atheists should join forces with progressive religionists to discourage religious fundamentalism.

            I sort of agree? The distinction between progressive and fundamentalist religion is sort of fuzzy. For instance, a Catholic blogger that I know of does attack young earth creationists, yet at the same time subscribes to something I’d describe as a more vague creationist view, i.e. guided evolution. And does also have some thoroughly messed up views about homosexuality. Is that person a progressive, or a fundamentalist?

            But I do think that a liberal Christian has a better chance of having a reasonable conversation with a fundamentalist than, say, an atheist. Of note here, I seem to recall that Richard Dawkins has teamed up with liberal Christians to do battle with creationists.

          • Neko

            Perhaps this blogger is neither a progressive nor a fundamentalist. Anyway, you don’t have to agree with a person about everything; some things, or even one issue, can be enough.

            You can have a reasonable conversation with reasonable people of any persuasion. I’d say unreasonableness is a characteristic of fundamentalism; an embrace of an ideology or theology that admits no scrutiny, counterfactuals, evidence or argument that threatens the convictions of a worldview.

          • Grimlock

            My apologies for the late response. My excuse is that I’m a bad person.

            I agree that this blogger does not necessarily fit either the “progressive” or “fundamentalist” tag. Which was my point – going by someone’s views doesn’t necessarily determine whether they are progressive or fundamentalist.

            I’d say unreasonableness is a characteristic of fundamentalism

            That seems like a way better way to distinguish progressives and fundamentalists than their views on various subjects. Nice!

          • arcseconds

            I vehemently loathe it when creationists attempts to screw up people’s education. I don’t think any idea is above being scrutinized, mocked, or ignored. As for science, I consider it our best tool for obtaining knowledge about the world, and fancy myself a fairly rational person, as far as humans go (so not very rational?).

            Many religious people could assert exactly this, although perhaps with some caveats about what the world being investigated by science is.

            (And, of course, lots of religious people think they’re extremely rational, and to disagree with them is to indicate your irrationality. Of course, many atheists think exactly the same thing. I suppose it’s possible one party is right, but I’m inclined to suspect it’s actually just intellectual arrogance in most case… )

            My opinion on actively raising a child in a religious tradition is that I’m highly skeptical of it, because there’s a blurry line between indoctrination and raising a child.

            What would you say to someone who said the same thing, except raising a child as, say, an American?

          • Grimlock

            Many religious people could assert exactly this, although perhaps with some caveats about what the world being investigated by science is.

            (And, of course, lots of religious people think they’re extremely rational, and to disagree with them is to indicate your irrationality. Of course, many atheists think exactly the same thing. I suppose it’s possible one party is right, but I’m inclined to suspect it’s actually just intellectual arrogance in most case… )

            True. However, I was merely attempting to list up what I think makes me a New Atheist. An interesting question would then be whether a religious person could hypothetically be called a New Atheist? The only real point of contention would, I think, be the ‘atheist’ part.

            I willingly concede that I am fairly arrogant when it comes to intellectual areas. So that might definitely play a part, at least in my case.

            Something I’ve noticed – making this anecdotal – is that some religious people prefer to place their religiosity outside of what can be considered rational or irrational. Yet this is at the same time the only thing that very much impacts their life that enjoys this position. This is rather intriguing. Is this just me, or do you think I might have a point here?

            What would you say to someone who said the same thing, except raising a child as, say, an American?

            That’s an interesting question! It should allow me to clarify my view, both to you, and to myself. Thanks.

            Let’s see… If, say, someone raised someone in an extremely… shall we say patriotic fashion? Making it clear that the US is by far the best country in the world, never visiting another country, attaching a superior morality to Americans, et cetera, then I would say that they’re not raising the child in a particularly balanced fashion.

            If someone on the other hand raised someone to be aware of other countries, visited other countries, explained differences, and such, one would still be raised an American, and with pride in ones country. But at the same time it would allow for a more balanced view, and an ability to see strengths and weaknesses with one’s own country.

            The same goes for the religious aspect of an upbringing. It is, I think, basically impossible to raise a child without it obtaining a set of your values and views. But there are good ways, and bad ways of doing this. And ways that it’s rather difficult to place in an either-or category. Thus my remark about the fuzzy boundary.

            Does this make sense to you? I admit that this is not something I’ve dwelled on too much, so this is a nice opportunity to think these things through.

          • arcseconds

            I just don’t think that being anti-creationism can really be said to make you a New Atheist, as it’s very common and not at all specific to them.

            (Wearing black doesn’t make one a Benedictine, a goth, or an SS officer. )

            I wasn’t trying to get at you with my ‘intellectual arrogance’ claim, I was just pointing out that ‘I’m being rational and everyone else is silly and irrational!’ is a claim lots of people make. Looking back on your post I see this is another similarity you see between yourself and the New Atheists… I hadn’t picked up on that and was just reacting to the rational claim, but I’ll now say that, like being anti-religion, it’s not at all specific to New Atheism.

            There’s no greater champion of rationality than Leibniz, and he was not an atheist, just as an example.

          • Grimlock

            Let’s say that we get a list of criterias for being a New Atheist. I don’t think many of those criteria would necessarily exclude a religious person from possibly being a New Atheist.

            Hehe, in all fairness, you probably could</em get at me with an intellectual arrogance claim.

            There’s no greater champion of rationality than Leibniz, and he was not an atheist, just as an example.

            True. I think a relevant point is that what it is rational to think depends very much on what information you have available to you. I think that especially in the olden days, it could very well be rational to believe in a god. I don’t think that it’s rational today, given sufficient unbiased information, though I realize that others would disagree.

            As a complete digression, since you mentioned Leibniz, are you by any chance a fan of xkcd? Regardless, this webcomic might amuse you; https://xkcd.com/626/

            P.S. I just noticed that you replied in one of our other discussion above here. I just wanted to let you know it’ll take a few hours before I have time to respond to it.

          • arcseconds

            It’s true that some religious people do categorize religion as not a matter for rationality, although of course many think it rather the only rational thing, and plenty don’t think about it at all.

            What I’d say about this is that actually most people don’t really believe things because they’re rational. Even proponents of science are frequently not doing anything more than repeating an account that seems to them to be consistent and integrated and intellectually pleasing in some way that they received from authority figures. Their ideas about how science is established are at best rather hazy. Even people with decent scientific training are often not all that good at this, especially outside their immediate area.

            Also, so much of life just isn’t ultimately open to being built up from a rational basis, or at best this would often seem rather silly. Someone trying to work out rationally whether they ought to love their children doesn’t strike me as a champion of rationality in any kind of praiseworthy sort of a way, but as either confused or possibly tragic or at least rather unusual (maybe they don’t have ordinary emotional responses, or maybe they do but their children have just joined the local neo-nazi squad…).

            Is it more rational to eat with a knife and fork, as in western countries, than with chopsticks or with one’s hands? A case can certainly be made for it: chopsticks are only really suited to things that come in bite-sized chunks (and nothing’s that suitable for noodles) and are actually difficult for rice, and hands is potentially unsanitary, and also means you end up having to wash your hand and lack that hand during the mealtime to manpulate jugs of water, etc.

            But it would seem silly for someone to insist on eating with a knife and fork on this basis. One does what one’s culture does, or appropriates other culture’s implements along with their food.

            So in some sense someone who says ‘this aspect of my life I don’t rationally question: emotively it makes sense to me’ is actually just being honest.

            And I don’t think I agree with your assessment that religion would be the only thing in their life that’s not subject to rationality. It’s probably true that they have a tendency to proclaim this more about religion, but on the other hand, no-one challenges people’s great love of sport and music as being ‘irrational.

            On this note: have you ever read or heard from or talked to someone who is really into Beethoven?

            They say things that on the face of it sound like nonsense: that the music reflects something deep about the human condition, and they even talk about things like living with Beethoven through his music… they say things like “he’s a great spirit”.

            Again, it’s hard to see this as something that’s the work of rationality, at least if that’s understood to be something separate from intuition and emotional responses, and to be about logical and empirical proofs. No-one tries to show how Beethoven can be derived from first principles, or does controlled experiments to establish the probability of the 7th symphony containing politically revolutionary content.

            The obvious sense in which it could be rational to engage in this stuff is that it’s enjoyable, or perhaps the outcomes of this process themselves have rational value, but those are extrinsic factors.

            I think it’s basically correct to say being intimately involved with Beethoven in the manner of a truly dedicated performer is not really a matter for rationality (again, as we’d normally mean it in contemporary society… there is a philosophical tradition of it meaning something wider than this).

            But it would be really bizarre to challenge a Beethoven interpreter’s commitment to Beethoven on this basis.

            And if a group of radical New Atheists decided that to be rationally consistent they had to be just as against music (or quasi-religious nonsense talk about music) as they were against religion, and came on to Beethoven sites demanding Beethoven devotees give a rational account of themselves, you might well find Beethoven devotees pompously declaring Beethoven as above and beyond mere logic.

            (In fact, of course, you can already find a certain amount of this, in part because there are pompous people everywhere, in part because it’s natural for people to make overwraught claims about things they’re enthusiastic about, but also because science does have a pre-eminence in the intellectual side of our society which can make itself felt as a challenge)

          • Grimlock

            I think you raise a number of valid points. But for the sake of disagreement (this is a comment section after all, where one ought not agree too much), I wanna make one distinction when it comes to something being rational.

            I don’t think we can say that one ought to hold a belief because it is rational. We act, hold beliefs, and generally just do stuff, because we are driven by emotions and desires. Rationality, as such, is simply a tool. Or, as David Hume put it,

            Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

            As such, reason and rationality are great tools for identifying whether, for instance, a knife and fork are better eating implements than chopsticks. However, whether their determines what one uses to eat depends on subjective preferences.

            What I tried to say about religious belief and rationality is the following. If one enjoys Beethoven, that is a subjective aspect. It’s limited to yourself, and the answer to “Do you enjoy Beethoven?” can have multiple answers, all valid.

            The question “Does the Earth orbit the sun?” has an objective answer, in the sense that there is only one correct answer.

            Whether there exists a god, or more specifically whether Christianity gives an accurate representation of reality, is such an objective question. It’s not a matter of subjective preferences whether Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead.

            Yet some believers will claim that this is not an area that is open for rational inquiry. Or, as one fundamentalist who dated a friend of mine said, “logic is the tool of the devil”.

            Does this distinction between subjective and objective areas of our experiences make sense to you?

          • arcseconds

            I must admit I’m confused.

            Up until now, you’ve sounded a lot like you think that rationality isn’t just some tool or other, like a wrench, but rather an important virtue that’s both achievable and desirable. E.g. you say things like this:

            For a few others, I generally think that religion’s influence in the social sphere should be reduced, and that religious belief in large is not rational belief*

            How do you know it’s not a rational belief, if reason is only the slave to passions? Surely it depends on what the passions are. If someone is really enthusiastic about Jesus and going to Church, then that’s their passion, isn’t it? And isn’t this passion best served by believing in religion?

            And if there’s no kind of obligation to be rational, why are you listing the irrationality among the reasons you’re a new atheist?

            Is it like being against tone-deaf people or something? They can’t help it and there’s no obligation to sing well, but you just don’t like it?

            I consider it our best tool for obtaining knowledge about the world, and fancy myself a fairly rational person, as far as humans go (so not very rational?).

            Which doesn’t sound like you think being ‘fairly rational’ is a bit like being ‘fairly tall’, just some arbitrary fact about you.

            and

            Also because, apparently, raising a child in a religion seems to hinder that person’s ability to make an objective choice about religious belief later in life.

            You think it’s important for children to be able to make objective choices about religious belief. But you don’t think they ought to believe one thing over another, and they’re just going to be directed by their passions no matter what, it sounds like. So can they actually make an objective choice at all? And why would this be important?

            And in the very same post you’re stressing things like objective facts, as opposed to subjective preferences. Again, I’m having difficulty making any sense of this. Are objective facts determined by some kind of rational process? If so, isn’t this, on your view, something that’s enslaved to the passions, and so therefore is dictated by what those passions are, which differs from person to person? And isn’t that actually then quite subjective? And if they’re not determined by a rational process, how can we come to know them? We could come to believe them accidentally, maybe, and maybe also be subjectively convinced that they’re objective, but this isn’t sounding very justificatory or actually objective to me…

          • arcseconds

            Regarding child raising, you seem to be happy to accept that parents are going to instil their values and their culture into their children, but want to insist on a difference between doing this in an intolerant, jingoistic manner and doing it in an open-minded, informed, and accepting manner, one that can cope fairly easily with the child choosing a different path from their parents.

            Atheist parents could also raise children in a doctrinaire manner, of course. Think of Dawkins or Harris at their worse, and imagine parents being like that all the time. Junior is taught that religious people are at best insipid and kind of stupid, but frequently fanatical, violent, dishonest and evil. Whereas atheists are rational and smart and fighting the good fight. They’re taught they must be eternally at war against religion. They’re not allowed religious friends, and reading religious books is supervised to make sure they know how stupid and evil they are. To make matters worse, the anti-religious attitude is accompanied by a just-under-the-surface racism, where Islam is seen as the worst of religion, and being a Muslim not cleanly separated from being an Arab.

            (There are really atheists that are not very far from being like this, so it wouldn’t surprise me if some kids were getting an upbringing a little like this.)

            I imagine you’d be just as against that kind of upbringing as a fundamentalist Christian one.

            So I wonder whether it’s really a religious upbringing you’re objecting to, as opposed to an intolerant and doctrinaire one.

          • Grimlock

            Hi! Sorry for the late response. It’s been hectic lately. But just to try to attempt to finish our discussion…

            I imagine you’d be just as against that kind of upbringing as a fundamentalist Christian one.

            So I wonder whether it’s really a religious upbringing you’re objecting to, as opposed to an intolerant and doctrinaire one.

            Well, yes. I generally don’t object to religious stuff simply because it’s religious. I object when there are consequences that I find undesirable, and these consequences frequently occur in other situations that does not at all involve religion.

            I suspect we agree on this?

          • arcseconds

            What you said earlier was:

            My opinion on actively raising a child in a religious tradition is that I’m highly skeptical of it, because there’s a blurry line between indoctrination and raising a child.

            This was in the context of you embracing the label ‘new atheist’.

            This rather sounds like you think that religion is particularly pernicious in terms of indoctrination. There’s no indication here that you think that it’s just like many other things that humans do, like forming communities or engaging in sports or creating art or recording history, and like these activities it has its dark side.

            And it seems from what you said earlier that you think religion is particularly in need of resisting, and this is important enough to you that it’s in fact a part of your identity — why else would you call yourself a ‘new atheist’?

            (Or are you also a ‘new anti-jingoist’ and a ‘new anti-dogmatic-atheist’?)

            But when I press you on this, it seems that it’s not religion itself that you’re actually against, but rather indoctrination and authoritarianism and that sort of thing. You don’t seem to have any strong objection to non-fundamentalist religion.

            So wouldn’t it be better to adjust your discourse so it’s more clear what you are actually against? A lot of religious people are also against indoctrination, and authoritarianism, and creationism, and are pro-science, and so forth, and it seems like these people ought to be your allies, because they’re against what you’re really against, but when you stress that you’re a ‘new atheist’ (rather than just an ordinary old atheist) and explain yourself in terms that singles out religion as being a source of these things that you find particularly concerning, and in a way that makes no distinction between fundamentalist religion and any other kind, you alienate potential allies, and come across as sounding a bit fundamentalist yourself.

        • J

          …can cause and/or contribute to all sorts of social problems.

          1.) Like what?

          2.) And what will you do then?

    • Neko

      Perhaps the rancor toward “mythicists” that surprises Coyne (who, for some reason, puts the term in scare quotes) has to do with the suspicion that mythicists are ideologically motivated. Indeed there’s much evidence (on this blog alone!) to support that contention.

      • Arlene Adamo

        I seriously doubt that Jeremy Coyne’s is honestly “surprised” at any rancor such articles receive. This is what he counts on for his career as a celebrity debater of theists and anti-theist pundit. Without it, wouldn’t a lot of his paid work dry up? Biology doesn’t really pay that well in comparison.

        We are all mythicists weaving stories about who we are and what everything around us means, and we are all ideologues who don’t easily let go of those myths we create, even the scientists. It’s just human nature.

        • Neko

          I think he genuinely is surprised, because, as Erp said above, he’s (perhaps willfully) ignorant of how professional historians approach the study of antiquity.

          • Arlene Adamo

            Which then begs the question, if one is willfully ignorant, (at some level knows the truth but refuses to recognize it for self-serving reasons), can the ‘surprise’ be truly genuine or is it something else?

          • Neko

            My point is that he doesn’t know “the truth” but is too ideologically hidebound to bother to find out why the consensus exists.

          • Arlene Adamo

            Thanks! I understand what you are saying.

  • James Byron

    Coyne helpfully, if painfully, illustrates something too often forgotten: an academic who leaves their field of expertise reverts instantly to amateur status.

    Mythicism’s junk historiography through and through. Curious that the church furiously combated heresies involving the most obscure points of theological minutiae, yet the biggest, baddest heresy of all — folks, Jesus the Christ never existed! — vanished from the historical record. The concept of a mythical Jesus doesn’t appear until a few hundred years back, and originated not with professional historians (who didn’t exist at the time), but with a couple of French dilettantes. Ever since, it’s advocated overwhelmingly by folk with an ideological axe to grind.

    Coyne, with his sneering reference to “formal training in Jesusology,” is just the latest example, albeit more egregious than most, ’cause a scientist with his stellar credentials should really, really know better. Back to Darwinology, Jerry!

    • J

      Hah hah, that’s funny: You think theology is somehow on the same level as science. As if.

      • The discussion here is not about theology, but about history.

        • J

          If there were proof of Jesus’ existence, maybe that would be the case.

          • Proofs are for mathematics. There is evidence for there having been a historical Jesus, just as there is for the evolutionary changes that have taken place over time down the ages. Surely you aren’t going to start complaining about the historical equivalents of abiogenesis and missing links, are you?

  • David Evans

    How much formal training in Islamic theology do you need, to be pretty sure that the Prophet did not split the Moon in half?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splitting_of_the_moon

    • None, but you might need training in history to be able to determine whether there was a historical Muhammad.

      • Grimlock

        I’ve seen the question of an historical Muhammad a couple of times. But I’ve always assumed that he left a bit of a mark, being a warlord and all. What’s the consensus of Muhammad’s historicity and the general reliability of the Koran?

        • The Qur’an is something of a separate matter, since it is purportedly the oracles of Muhammad which were not written by him but by his followers. But the consensus, based not least on early references to him by non-Muslims, is that there was a historical Muhammad.

          • Grimlock

            Good to know, thanks!

  • Grimlock

    Here are my five rambling cents.

    Part of the issue here is, I think, the difference between the hard and soft sciences. When estimating the certainty of something in the hard sciences you can often quantify it pretty well, and obtain very large degrees of certainty (e.g. particle physics).

    In ancient history this is harder. It is hard to quantify certainty or probabilities, and (I think?) doing so is not a widely used habit among scholars. Additionally, due to the limited evidence for all things that happened a long time ago, we are limited in how much we can know. We simply cannot expect to say something with the same amount of certainty in ancient history as we can in some of the hard sciences (not to mention mathematics).

    So going from the hard sciences to, say, ancient history, you automatically get a bit skeptical when people make assertions using the same phrases of certainty as you do in, say, particle physics.

    Another reason for the relatively widespread mythicism among non-believers might be the downright dishonesty from Christian apologetics. If one listened to some of the typical apologetic slogans (“We have more evidence for Jesus than any other person in ancient history!”), one might be inclined to overcompensate, and dismiss the whole sheebang.

    If one mostly hears about the historicity for apologetically inclined believers, serious scholars get (subconsciously?) tainted by association.

  • Mark

    Some day Coyne will realize that his blog has become an equivalent of a 9/11- truther or Obama-birther site. The most interesting feature of this phenomenon is the close linkage of scientific rationality and what is effectively a new age historiography. You would need something like Horkheimer and Adorno to comprehend it properly. The commentator called “decourse” is doing good work on behalf of secular rationality over there; and, of course, the True Unbelievers are busily meeting his or her points with the customary cut and paste Mithraic Celestial Christ Josephus forgery blather.

  • TreeParty

    Here are my rambling two shekels:
    If we think about whether evolution really happened, the evidence is compelling on every level: genetics, fossil record, comparative anatomy, etc.
    If we think about whether “the historical Jesus” ever existed, the evidence is, to be generous, scant. I have to agree with Coyne that “there is no credible extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence.” Of course, much of the Bible is not credible historical document, so I see no inconsistency in Coyne’s position. If anyone can produce a trove of extra-Biblical evidence, then we can evaluate that. If there isn’t such a record, then a person can be forgiven for entertaining such a well-founded doubt.

    • Mark

      Why should the evidence be extra biblical? What does a classification from the 4 th c or so have to do with the texts themselves? Rational secular people want an explanation of the existence of the texts, among other things, eg Paul and Mark. It’s pretty clear that the execution of a messianic figure named Jesus is part of the best explanation.

    • The requirement that the evidence be “extra-Biblical” is an interesting addition. Why would relevant texts, whether they be letters or stories, suddenly be placed off limits for use by historians because they later came to be included in a compilation known as the Bible?

      • Mark

        Coyne is effectively saying that there is one thing that does not admit naturalistic explanation, viz ” the Bible”. On the usual secular account, anything actual is evidence for whatever is the best explanation of it. Putting “the Bible” outside the scope of explanation is complete irrationalism.

        • Grimlock

          I would guess that he’s actually saying that text written by religious fanatics for the purpose of proselytizing are generally unreliable.

          • But what he is saying is the equivalent of responding to someone who says “Come listen to my pastor preach the truth” with “You’re so untrustworthy I refuse to believe that you even know whether your pastor exists or not!”

          • Grimlock

            Perhaps. But I’m not sure how that relates to the claim that Coyne effectively claims that the Bible does not admit a naturalistic explanation? (Which is the specific claim to which I was responding.)

          • Mark

            My dreams have an explanation even though they are not merely unreliable but mostly impossible nonsense.

          • Grimlock

            Sure. How does that relate to your claim that Coyne is effectively saying that the Bible does not admit a naturalistic explanation?

          • Mark

            He is saying that anything that later ecclesiastical notables brought under the heading of “the Bible” cannot be used as evidence of anything. This entails that he thinks it cannot itself be given a naturalistic explanation. In fact it can be given a naturalistic explanation, and the outline of the best such explanation is quite clear. It is not orthodox Christianity and it isn’t semi- Mithraic celestial crucifixion prophets ether.

          • Grimlock

            He is saying that anything that later ecclesiastical notables brought under the heading of “the Bible” cannot be used as evidence of anything.

            Clearly this is not correct, or at the very least it’s a claim without a solid foundation. Thus collapsing your whole reasoning.

          • Mark

            It follows from what he does say, as I emphasized from the beginning. Historically minded skeptical people arrive at the conclusion that the texts of Mark and Paul etc. must have arisen in connection with //a failed Palestinian messianic movement focussed on someone named Jesus who was executed in connection with these messianic ideas// but not because they believe the texts, credit them, or trust them, but as the best explanation of the text; the explanation has great power in that it can also e.g. explain the fantastic and absurd and incredible and untrustworthy features of the text and the specific form they take. The confusion between believing the text and explaining the text is totally elementary and pervades the internet blathersphere on these themes. The inference to a “Jesus”-oriented messianic movement is not particularly strengthened by ‘extra-biblical’ evidence like Josephus. The explanations that do without something like this hypothesis are simply inferior – though maybe someday someone will see something that could make one plausible. They all end up bottoming out in Celestial Crucifixion of Celestial Davidic World Rulers by Celestial Roman Empires and a certain amount of Celestial Davidic Seed and so on — or in plots by 3rd century ecclesiastics that make the Da Vinci code look cogent — or in something about Mithras and Osiris — and so on. People who consider /such/ hypotheses better than the usual skeptical account, should ask themselves why they are resisting imputing any efficacy to 2nd Temple Jewish messianic movements.

          • Grimlock

            Really? You would claim that Coyne doesn’t think that the Bible would be considered evidence for there having been Christians in the first century, for instance? Because that is implied by your claim that he doesn’t think the Bible counts as evidence for anything.

          • Mark

            The texts to be explained are indeed quite “unreliable”. This too is a feature that needs to be explained, as are all the details of the particular ways in which they are unreliable. The “Bible” is evidence for whatever is the best explanation of its fantastic elements. There is no question of “trusting” it or “relying” on it.

      • TreeParty

        Coynes’ desire for corroborating evidence from sources other than the Bible is perfectly consistent with the scientific enterprise. “Relevant texts” should not be off limits at all, but of course, they should be subject of evaluation of historical accuracy. Independent records can help buttress the accuracy of the Biblical ones as regards the “historical Christ”. Regrettably, there don’t seem to be any such records. So, can we believe that all the Greek and Roman deities really existed in light of all the records of their exploits, etc?

        • We’re not talking about a deity here. Jesus is not divine in our earliest sources. We’re talking about the human person, purportedly descended from David, that some managed to believe was the anointed one who would restore the Davidic dynasty to the throne, despite his apparent disqualification for serious consideration when he was crucified by the Romans. And historians have been over the New Testament with a fine-toothed comb and have cast doubt on a great many things. It is precisely because not everything can plausibly be discarded even after skeptical scrutiny that the consensus is so overwhelming in favor of their having been a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

          • TreeParty

            This is a topic on which I am certainly no expert. My whole point is that Jerry Coyne is not a hypocrite when it comes to mythicism, since the same skeptical analysis that one applies to the physical realm in consideration of the validity of evolution gives reason to have valid doubts about the actual person of Christ. We may never know if Christ actually physically existed – there isn’t a lot of physical evidence for it. But I think we can be extremely confident that evolution is real.

          • This is bizarre. Coyne is arguing in favor of the consensus of mainstream scientists, and against the even more overwhelming consensus of mainstream historians.

            What physical evidence do you imagine that we ought to have for an ancient figure of the sort that Jesus of Nazareth was? What physical evidence do we have for the historicity of John the Baptist, or Hillel, or most other first century Jews?

          • Mensch59

            … the even more overwhelming consensus of mainstream historians

            How old is the higher analytical criticism of the main source material used by those “mainstream historians” attempting to prove the historicity of a messianic “Jesus” (not a Semetic Semitic name)?
            For that matter, how good was traditional historical analysis which didn’t exhaustively question the basic historical accuracy of the Christian scriptures and the authority of those writings?
            Thankfully higher critical historical analysis has come a long way in separating itself from religious apologetics.

          • You’re not going to seriously suggest that, because we render the name Yeshua as Jesus rather than Joshua in referring to this individual in English, it affects his historicity, are you?

          • Mensch59

            I’m only acknowledging that “Jesus” isn’t a Semetic Semitic name.

            Iff there were authoritative contemporary Jewish historical references to this (mythical?) messianic person by name written in Hebrew or Aramaic, then these references are not extant. What Biblical references which have survived have extremely questionable historical reliability. This calls into question the appeal to criteria and authority of the primary source material. Professional skepticism would support the mythicist position and call into question historicity.

            I have no problem with the Christ myth.

          • The only kind of people who think what you write is plausible are the kind of people who will be dogmatic about the name of Jesus, as though we were talking about an ancient Englishman, but not know how to spell Semitic.

            We have, unsurprisingly, Greek sources from the era in which that language predominated in the region and was widely used among Jews, and we do have a Jewish source who lived at the same time as Jesus, and who met his brother, and such evidence is only unpersuasive to individuals who are interested not in history but an ideologically-driven agenda.

          • Mensch59

            Written like a true believing, ideological, and anti-critical apologist.
            http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/2522

          • This is a place for serious discussion, not trolling. If you are inclined to embrace the fringe views of an individual outside of the academy, while accusing the whole body of secular historians and critical scholars of being “anti-critical apologists,” then you won’t mind if I suggest that you leave here and rejoin the echo chamber over on the blog you linked to.

          • Andrew Schefe

            You say Jesus isn’t Devine in our earliest sources, yet in those same texts ( the Pauline letters), the claim that ‘James the Lords brother’ is a proof text for historicity.
            Surely being referred to as The Lord (I’m assuming it means Yahweh) is a Devine status?

          • Why, pray tell, would you assume that “the Lord” means Yahweh? Is there some special meaning to your misspelling of the word divine? How would James/Jacob being Yahweh’s brother work?

            Have you given any of the details even the least thought?

          • Andrew Schefe

            Thanks for your condescending reply.
            If the Lord doesn’t refer to Yahweh, who does it refer to? If it’s Jesus then why not just say James the brother of Jesus?
            As to how this brotherhood would ‘work’, this along with Paul having conversations with Jesus in heaven are beyond my comprehension.

          • Thank you for illustrating why history and the interpretation of ancient texts should not be undertaken by people with no relevant linguistic and historical expertise. What you are asking is rather like an English speaker today going to somewhere that Spanish is spoken, and asking why someone would call someone else “señor” if they do not believe that person to be God. Like señor, the Greek word kyrios has a range of use spanning “Mr.” through “master” and “lord” as applied to a slave’s owner or a king, to its use as a circumlocution for the divine name.

            Where does Paul say he had conversations with Jesus in heaven?

            You have never actually read the letters in which Paul mentions the brothers of the Lord, have you?

        • Mark

          It isn’t a question of “buttressing” the text of Mark or the letters of Paul but of finding the best historical explanation of their existence and character. These things actually exist and are the way they are. There is no question of trusting the texts at all, only of attaining the best explanation of their existence. It is plain to all that an executed messianic figure named Jesus is part of the best explanation. No trust or reliance is needed just the reality of the text and other phenomena of the movement. Maybe there is a better explanation, but it isn’t anything about crucifixion of non-people born of metaphorical women by mirror Roman empires in outer space, it’s much simpler than that.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Hey, those sky demons ain’t gonna destroy themselves.

          • TreeParty

            No, it is not “plain to all that an executed messianic figure named Jesus is part of the best explanation”. It is plain that an executed messianic figure is part of AN explanation, but how and why would we know that it is the BEST explanation absent some other evidence!? You are effectively arguing that the best evidence for the truth of certain historical claims is that those claims describe events that actually occurred. Forgive me, but that strikes me as extremely gullible. Does that apply to the tale about Noah’s Ark, too?

          • “how and why would we know that it is the BEST explanation absent some other evidence!?”

            We use the critical methods developed and used by historians over the last two centuries – methods developed because historians of the pre-modern past have to work with clearly biased sources all the time and usually have to work with ones full of supernatural claims and assumptions as well. Welcome to ancient history. In this case, the executed messianic claimant explanation fits the most amount of evidence with the least number of suppositions – ie the principle of parsimony.

            The Mythicist alternatives, on the other hand, only work by accepting some very dubious ad hoc arguments to make key pieces of evidence go away and then also accept a number of baseless suppositions which are little more than ways of propping up the Mythicist thesis. This is why they tend to only convince two groups of people (i) the historically and historiographically illiterate and (ii) those emotionally biased toward the Mythicist idea for ideological reasons. Coyne falls squarely into both categories.

          • What on earth does Noah’s ark have to do with whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth or not?!

          • Mensch59

            Validity of primary source material?

          • I can make the comparison that accepting the mythicism of Acharya S is like accepting the mythology of ancient Israel. But unless the two cases are genuinely comparable, and I articulate how they are comparable, then I’m not really saying anything substantive.

            If you are suggesting that, because we have a Hebrew text from at least several thousand years after the tiem in which it sets an event which is clearly mythical and derivative of still older mythology, therefore Paul who had met Jesus’ brother cannot have been in a position to know that he was a historical figure, I will respond by pointing out that that is complete and utter nonsense of a patently absurd and illogical sort.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            It’s an explanation that requires the introduction of the fewest entities.

          • Nick G

            You are effectively arguing that the best evidence for the truth of certain historical claims is that those claims describe events that actually occurred.

            That sentence doesn’t appear to make sense. Did you mean “explanation” where you said “evidence for the truth”? If not, what did you mean?

            If my surmise is right, then obviously one needs to look at whether the historical claim is plausible, implausible, or downright impossible. There’s nothing implausible about the historical claim that there was a charismatic Jewish preacher called Jesus (or rather, something more like Yoshua ben Yosef) who gathered a following in Galilee, caused a disturbance in Jerusalem and was executed by the Roman authorities for sedition, his followers subsequently founding a cult which made supernatural claims for him. That there was a boat which contained representatives of every kind of land animal plus eight human beings, who survived a universal flood while all other land animals and people drowned, is downright impossible. See the difference?

          • TreeParty

            “..doesn’t appear to make much sense.” Precisely. “Explanation” is not evidence. An “explanation” for a given text, even the best among several, is not a very strong guide to the veracity of the text. And, frankly, neither is plausibility. I agree that we can rule out the occurrence of events that are “downright impossible”; but we cannot accept the truth of claims simply because “there is nothing implausible” about them. By the way; “evidence” would be something like Pontius Pilate’s crucifixion records that provide a record of the crucifixion of a “Jesus of Nazareth” at around the time Jesus was reputed to have died. Do we have any kind of evidence like that? Don’t you wish that we did?
            The wild implausibility of the claim, apparently believed by something like a quarter of humanity, that Jesus was divine, and died to save humanity from eternal torment, forgives Coyne’s questioning the veracity of the merely plausible, in my humble opinion.

          • Mensch59

            Forgive me for barging in, but I think that we are looking for proof, i.e. sufficient and necessary evidence or a logical fallacy free argument for the truth of a proposition.

            It’s interesting to me that “in the areas of epistemology (the examination of the nature of knowledge and how one can acquire it) and theology (the study of the nature of divine being, existence, or reality), the notion of justification plays approximately the role of proof.” So, it seems to me, we are discussing two types of justification. In the case of justifying the scientific theory of evolution, we have powerful empirical evidence which is abject foolishness (indeed, stupidity) to deny. In the case of justifying (or lack of justification re) the historicity of a messianic “Jesus” (not a Semetic Semitic name), authoritative testimony (the appeal to criteria and authority) or logical deduction is the methodology required. It seems very important not to confuse different methodologies, or even to claim that one method has superior merit over another, when comparing and contrasting (without unnecessary confusion) historia (Greek) ‘finding out, narrative, history’ with scientia (Latin) ‘knowledge.’

          • … but I think that we are looking for proof …

            If you want “proof” you’re in the wrong discipline. Mathematics and physics are down the hall and to your right.

            In the case of justifying the scientific theory of evolution, we have
            powerful empirical evidence which is abject foolishness (indeed,
            stupidity) to deny. In the case of justifying (or lack of justification
            re) the historicity of a messianic “Jesus” (not a Semetic Semitic name), authoritative testimony (the appeal to criteria and authority) or logical deduction is the methodology required.

            That’s quite a Gordian tangle of confused ideas. Firstly, no-one has made an analogy between the nature or the sureness of the case for evolution and the case for a historical Jesus. Given that the two cases are in two completely different disciplines, no such analogy could be usefully made. The analogy is between the consensus of people who know what they are talking about in both cases – which is overwhelming. Secondly, that doesn’t mean the conseus is correct (and no-one claimed this either), it just means that Coyne’s acknowledgement of the consensus in the field he understands and rejection of the one in the field he clearly knows zero about speaks volumes about the guy. And his weird biases. Finally, what the hell has the Anglicisation of ‘Yeshua’ got to do with anything? You realise he wasn’t actually called Mark Anthony, don’t you? Does that mean he didn’t exist?

          • Nick G

            No, your sentence did not make sense in relation to anything anyone else had said here. It still doesn’t.

            No-one has said we should accept something just because there is nothing implausible about it, but your comparison with Noah’s ark was ridiculous because we can dismiss claims about past events that are downright impossible, whereas with claims that are plausible, we need to consider whether their occurrence is the best available explanation of the evidence we have. Thus, the theories of common descent, and evolution by natural selection are the best available explanation of the evidence we have. The theory that there was a historical Jesus is also the best explanation we have for the available evidence – although of course the evidence could be a lot stronger, as it is for figures like Julius Caesar, and the (previously completely unknown) writers of letters found at a fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

            The wild implausibility of the claim, apparently believed by something like a quarter of humanity, that Jesus was divine, and died to save humanity from eternal torment, forgives Coyne’s questioning the veracity of the merely plausible, in my humble opinion.

            Complete tosh. Of course Jesus was not divine (and in fact the earliest Christian sources do not say or imply that he was, although they do imply he had some kind of special relationship with God). That is a completely separate issue from whether there was a historical Jesus. As an atheist, I am sometimes tempted to think leading mythicists are undercover Christians, dedicated to demonstrating that atheists are credulous fools.

          • TreeParty

            There is nothing implausible about Dickens’ David Copperfield as history; but I think we can stipulate that David Copperfield is a fictional character that did not actually exist in real life.
            When I was young, I was in a cult, the cult of Davy Crockett. I liked to wear a coonskin cap in celebration of the many exploits of the king of the wild frontier. But Davy Crockett actually DID exist in real life. And how do we know that? Good question; there is a great deal of evidence for his existence, too numerous to mention here.
            And what is the evidence for the actual existence in real life of Jeshua Josephson? Some accounts that are “not implausible”? I am underwhelmed. Accounts that he “raised the dead”? (Luke 7) Not implausible?!
            The “theory of evolution”, as an explanation, is not only “not implausible”, it is supported by, and fully consistent with, a body of evidence that is vast and compelling. Did you say you don’t have Jesus death record, or really any other independent (of the bible) evidence for his existence except a “best explanation” for “not implausible” claims?

          • I am not persuaded that you were actually in a cult of Davy Crockett. And I am not persuaded that, if I were to approach your claims with the same kind of denialist strategies used to dispute the historicity of Jesus, that you would be able to defend Crockett’s historicity convincingly.

            Miracles are supposed to have been performed by all kinds of historical individuals in antiquity, whether it be prophecy by Josephus or healing by Vespasian. The argument “People said he did miracles, therefore he probably did not exist” is illogical, and I suspect that most mythicists could see that, if their aim were to be logical rather than to engage in online point-scoring against religious people. But the latter concern is not the concern of the historian.

          • Grimlock

            What do you think about the distinction between miracles occuring in the story, as opposed to miracles being at the core of a story?

            As sort of a principle for reliability, I would generally find that the more central a role miracles play in a story, or the more abundant they are, the less reliable the whole story gets.

            I seem to recall, however, that Mark is by far the least miracle-y of the Gospels, and as it is the first, I’m not sure if accepting this principle would count in favor of mythicism.

            As a side note, I didn’t actually know that Davy Crockett was an actual historical figure. I read a series of books about him aimed at kids when I was growing up, but haven’t actually considered whether he was in fact historical. This is awesome!

          • arcseconds

            I think you’re trying for something a bit too simplistic here: looking for some superficial criteria to reject a story as not containing any historical situation.

            I say ‘superficial’, because any story, however historical, can have an arbitrary number of miracles added to it. The historical part of it doesn’t cease to be historical as a result of it. For all the incredible stories told about him, Uri Gellar is no less a historical individual than Neville Chamberlain.

            The question is whether we can discern a historical narrative among the miracles, however many there may be. And here the questions are things like: once you strip the miracles away, do we have a historically plausible individual? Do we have testament that plausibly goes back to the events in question? Are some of the events rather unlikely to have been made up?

            And so forth.

            Things like ‘miracle-counting’ (or counting Rank-Raglan hero myth features) can seem tempting, because they seem quantitative, and more objective. But I think they only seem more objective because they’re essentially superficial, and real history means engaging with the sources and making judgement calls.

          • Grimlock

            once you strip the miracles away, do we have a historically plausible individual?

            And this is basically the point that I want to make. So to take examples from the Marvel movieverse (because why not), consider the first Iron Man movie. Once you strip away the implausible parts, i.e. the Iron Man technology, the story collapses. The whole story revolves around this technology, and the story doesn’t make sense without it.

            Consider, then, the Daredevil TV series on Netflix (as opposed to the somewhat awkward Ben Affleck Daredevil movie). You can remove the implausible supersense, and yet remain with a plausible story of a vigilante/lawyer, with the whole crime fighting thing.

            In this case, I would consider the Daredevil story to be more plausible, because it doesn’t have something very implausible at the core of the narrative. It contains implausible aspects, yet the story can do without it.

            I’m more interested in this principle in general, and not so much about its possible relevance for Jesus. As I mentioned before, I’m not sure if Mark would do that badly without the miracles at the core, so applying this principle to Jesus doesn’t really seem to do much either way.

          • TreeParty

            “People said he did miracles, therefore he probably did not exist” is not my argument. My argument, and Jerry Coyne’s I think, is that most of the “evidence” for the actual existence of Christ is so insubstantial as to invite great skepticism. Never mind the “total impossibility” of many of the accounts in the gospels, etc.
            To use your convoluted logic: to believe firmly in Christ’s historicity but to dispute Davy Crockett’s is the height of irrationality, and betrays a confirmation bias

          • With the same confirmation bias at work in mythicism, one can deny the existence of anyone in the ancient world. Emperors and other people of great wealth and status may be slightly more challenging. But when one is willing to take even mundane statements and transfer them to the celestial realm, nothing will prove impossible.

            Try it, if you don’t believe me.

          • Nick G

            I notice you don’t actually have any alternative explanation for the accounts we do have. In the case of David Copperfield, we do. How is it, if those accounts were not based on a real person – obviously, heavily mythologised, like many characters from the ancient world whose existence no-one doubts – came to be regarded as accounts of a real person. Did Paul believe Jesus was a real person? The authors of the synoptic gospels? The author of the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas? The author of Acts? The author of the Gospel of John? The second century “apostolic fathers”? Exactly when and how did the transition from “everyone knows Jesus wasn’t a real person”, to “everyone [that we know of] falsely believes Jesus was a real person” occur?

          • Neko

            Actually the earliest sources do indicate that the cultists thought Jesus was divine, though not that he was God.

          • Jim

            ” … “evidence” would be something like Pontius Pilate’s
            crucifixion records that provide a record of the crucifixion of a “Jesus of Nazareth” … Do we have any kind of evidence like that?”

            That expectation seems totally odd to me, because the goal of Roman crucifixion was to totally blot out a person and any memory of them from history, especially for those executed as enemies of the state. The victim was kept on the cross until their flesh has been taken apart by birds, etc., and then the remains were typically dumped into a mass grave (making it difficult even for any family to recognize which bits belonged to who). All contributing to the goal of eliminating any record of the criminal.

            As total obliteration of the person was the goal of crucifixion, why would the Romans have kept any records (other than maybe for the execution of a high profile political leader/ruler)? How many surviving crucifixion records are there from the thousands of victims crucified during that era?

            And since we’re requesting Romans crucifixion records from 2K years ago (of sufficient detail to satisfy 21st century mythicists), maybe we should also add to our list of expectations, Pilate’s depository of cryo-frozen victim DNA samples too. After all, original records could be filled out incorrectly or tampered with.

          • TreeParty

            So; no, we don’t have any evidence like that? The suggestion of the crucifixion records was merely an example of what would constitute some independent, more or less physical evidence of Christ’s existence; not an expectation that such a thing would or should exist. After all, there is very scant physical evidence that Pilate himself was the prefect of Judea at the time. But it is with some disappointment that I note that nobody in this forum can point to any actual evidence, or contemporary records, of Christ’s life or existence.
            See, I am not arguing that Jesus didn’t actually exist; I am just, in Professor McGrath’s words, trying to help him “understand how someone who is a champion of scholarship in one domain, can be a champion of fringe pseudoscholarship in another.” Honestly, I think calling Coyne a “champion of fringe pseudoscholarship” is not fair at all. When you apply the same evidentiary stringency in evaluating the historicity of Christ as you do in a typical scientific project, it is not at all implausible to entertain serious doubts based on the dearth of evidence.

          • May I ask again why, given the kind of figure we are talking about and the types of evidence it is reasonable to expect, the fact that we have a letter from someone who had met his brother is not sufficient?

            No one is suggesting that it is inappropriate to doubt and to approach the subject with skepticism. What is inappropriate is to pretend that historians and scholars have not ben doing that for more than a century, or to pretend that motivated reasoning is not at work in the unwillingness of some to accept as probable those details which seem so to historians after rational, skeptical, historical-critical analysis.

          • Jim

            Yeah, I think I understood what you were getting at. And sure it’s disappointing that, “nobody in this forum can point to any actual evidence, or contemporary records, of Christ’s life or existence”. But your statement contains an insightful phrase (i.e. “Christ’s life”) that might suggest why not. Jesus was a craftsman from a small village and who only had a few loyal followers who thought that he was ‘the Christ” during his lifetime. For all practicality sake, why would there be any contemporary records for someone like that? How many contemporary records are there for average Galileans from the 1st century?

            Jesus’ life (nor anyone else from antiquity) obviously can’t be repeated multiple times and studied like scientific experiments can. Studying the historical Jesus poses unique problems and historians have developed tools/criteria to help them along in their studies.

            I think the disappointment with Coyne was that as a scientist, he should realize the scope of this difference and the distinctness facing HJ studies. No one is suggesting that he should change his mind on Jesus’ historicity, but rather, that he should be able to convey that he understands how HJ scholars have arrived at their current consensus.

            Current consensus is that there was a historical Jesus. I think that if HJ historians are ever presented with a compelling and convincing case(s) for Jesus having been purely a mythological figure, they would treat the proposal seriously. Contrary to the impression given by a few mythicists, such a proposal has yet to surface. When one does, the current consensus on the historical Jesus would be expected to be affected.

        • Jim

          I’d say that your point re “Coynes’ desire for corroborating evidence from sources other than the Bible is perfectly consistent with the scientific enterprise” highlights why I think Coyne is totally talking out of his anus when he ventures into the realm of historicity.

          If we want to bring this back into the realm of science, I doubt that anyone will ever be able to even identify the precise conditions and the specific locations where the first abiogenesis events occurred. Yet I think most of us will agree that simple replicating metabolic chemical systems did ultimately did arise and did give rise to living systems.

          The main concern for me however, is that Jerry Coyne doesn’t seem to be able to recognize that he is in some danger of speaking out of his anus when he ventures out of his own field of expertise.

          If he is personally in favor of the notion of mythicism, or whatever, that’s totally fine. What concerns me is his rather unscientific approach of making overtly bold statements outside of his own field. I’m thinking I wouldn’t want my kids to take any of his undergraduate classes any more than I would want my kids to take classes from a YEC-er.

          For me then, the primary issue is that Coyne, who “should actually know better than any YER-er not to spout out of one’s anus about things outside their own expertise”, doesn’t seem to be able to “recognize the process of how scholarship contributes to the advancement of total human knowledge” (each field of specialization relying on techniques that have been optimized to handle problems specific to their field) … oh by the way did I mention speaking out of one’s anus anywhere?

          • TreeParty

            What, pray tell, would be an example of an “overly bold statement outside of his own field” that Jerry Coyne made in the linked article, that isn’t valid on its face?

          • Jim

            Hmm, I wonder if something like Coyne’s statement “Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence.” would fit the bill.

            I’m wondering why someone of Jerry Coyne’s fame wouldn’t first consider emailing Ehrman and asking him if this is what he is implying (maybe he did email Ehrman, but it’s not all that clear in the post).

            When scientists don’t understand something published by another scientist, the most common initial reflex is to email the corresponding author and ask for clarification rather than to first publish a statement on a blog. If after that, you still don’t buy into the explanation, then you could proceed by blogging about it and why you feel it’s out to lunch.

            At least that’s how it was done in the old days. Again, I personally wouldn’t default to Ehrman on a position regarding evolution, nor would I default to Coyne on a position regarding the historical Jesus. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

          • TreeParty

            Hmm, I wonder if you noticed that the statement that you quoted was not “Coyne’s statement”, but was from a passage in an article by Brian Bethune that Coyne quoted. I don’t know what Bethune’s bona fides are, but to ascribe the “overly bold statement” to Coyne is disingenuous bordering on dishonest, wouldn’t you agree? I sense something being pulled out of an anus here!

          • Mark

            Bethune is a journalist for Macleans, the Canadian magazine.

          • Jim

            Yup you’re right. I should have recognized that this was directly taken from the article published in MacLean’s rather than Jerry Coyne’s own words … definitely my bad anus.

            I still do however get the impression, that Coyne was “subliminally” posing; “what was Ehrman thinking?” since Coyne offers select quotes from Bethune’s article. I further think that, because of his (Coyne’s) high profile, Coyne could have at least indicated whether he had first personally contacted Ehrman for clarification on these statements, especially since MacLean’s is not a noted forum for scholarly reviews.

          • And isn’t the point that Coyne is uncritically accepting the claims made by Bethune, and rejecting what actual professional historians and scholars have written on this topic? Surely the fact that Coyne is repeating what someone else with no expertise has said is illustrative of the problem?

          • Jim

            Yeah, my first comment was admittedly out of line (the wearing feelings on the coat sleeves thing), but that’s the part that I wasn’t happy with – the tone of not respecting scholars in another field of expertise, and likely in a manner that one wouldn’t tolerate if there own field was targeted in a similar fashion.

            I’m not a historian (I have a science background), but I think that someone of Jerry Coyne’s fame would appropriately acknowledge that scholars of other fields of academic study have researched their respective fields as long and hard as he has his. My strongly worded disagreement was not at all about his own conclusions, but rather the overall subliminal portrayal of NT scholars, particularly those who work at secular universities (and displaying this tone by defaulting to a magazine writer’s article).

            But again, just my sensitivity.

      • James Byron

        Yup, this “extra-biblical” criterion’s bizarre. “But the Bible’s biased!” No kidding guys, of course it’s biased — along with every other source. That’s why scholars develop tools to analyse texts.

        And, of course, if knock-down, extra-biblical evidence were to emerge, they’d just shift the goalposts and discredit it, as they do Josephus and Tacitus. When your methodology’s this elastic, you can “prove” anything ya like, and they do. At least, to themselves.

        • Jim

          I’d be way less skeptical if the evidence about Jesus’ historicity came from say … gynecologists (who wouldn’t have any reason for biases on the subject); hard evidence like published proceedings of seminars presented at a Jesus conference held at the Galilee Hilton in 30 CE and edited by someone like Salome (of Gospel of James fame) could work for me. 🙂

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      The only evidence we have from Socrates’ existence is Plato who isn’t writing history -at all-. Should our default position be that Socrates doesn’t exist unless we can find some mention of Socrates not written by his followers? Just one follower, actually.

      • We have two followers – Plato and Xenophon. And there is also an appearance of a character named Socrates in Aristophanes’ drama.

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2010/10/mythicism-vs-the-socratic-historians.html

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Well, there you go. He obviously exists.

          • Pseudonym

            Well, I don’t know about that. Plato and Xenophon are both philosophical references. Where are the independent non-philosophical references?

            The Aristophanes play is fiction, so that doesn’t count.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Yes, I was being tongue-in-cheek. And maybe you are, too. 🙂

          • arcseconds

            There’s somewhere where he’s referenced in the accounts of the assembly. This was pointed out to me in an earlier conversation here, in fact. I can’t seem to track it down right now.

            I think though this is kind of parallel to Galatians 1:19. A piece of evidence which prima facie seems to establish the figure very clearly as not a literary construction, but if you’re prepared to say ‘maybe ‘brother’ means something else’, I don’t see why you also couldn’t say ‘well, maybe saying ‘Socrates’ here is like calling someone an Iago.’.

          • arcseconds

            Moreover, Plato tells us quite explicitly that he endorses lying and making up myths!

            And he’s quite happy to attribute superhuman qualities to Socrates: he doesn’t need to sleep, can’t get drunk, stands thinking for hours on end, has supernatural guidance, etc.

            Plus, of course, while little has survived of it apart from Plato and Xenophon, we know that Socratic dialogues were a literary form, practiced by several others.

            So by parity of reasoning: definitely a myth!

  • Mark

    Why should the evidence be extra “biblical”? ” Biblical” is a religious not historical concept. Rational secular people are looking for an explanation of the texts canonized in much later times, among other things, not caring that they were canonized. It’s pretty clear that an execution of a Palestinan messianic character is part of the best explanation of these texts and the various wacky ideas they contain. Maybe someone will devise a better explanation; it certainly hasn’t happened yet.